3: GREECE (Seventh to Fifth century BC)

3: GREECE (Seventh to Fifth century BC)


Crete, considered to be the fifth biggest island of the Mediterranean and the largest in Greece, was once the main centre of the peninsulas of Greece and Asia Minor. Crete along with other islands of the region was thought to be the hiding places of adventurous seamen and private kings who travelled extensively, piling up wealth in their castles by means of trade and surprise attacks in the sea.

Kings of the main centre, the island of Crete, were wealthy and powerful who sent delegations to Egypt and whose Art created an impression there too. It’s still not determined, who were the people that ruled Crete and whose Art was emulated in Mycenae, part of the Greek mainland. Around 1000 BC, tribes from Europe infiltrated into Greece and the shores of Asia, defeating the previous occupants.

Greek vase in the Geometric style made about 700 BC. Athens, National Archaeological Museum

Initially, the Art of these tribal residents for a few centuries seemed tyrannical and crude in nature. Pottery was embellished with plain basic geometric patterns with imagery amalgamated in the design. For instance, the image below is from a Greek vase belonging to 700 BC that depicts the mourning of a death. A dead man lying on a bier with women on both sides experiencing the grief, their hands upon their heads, a custom seen in all ancient societies.

The mourning of the dead. From a Greek vase in the Geometric style made about 700 BC. Athens, National Archaeological Museum

This very simplicity, order, and organization were also clearly evident in the style of Architecture introduced by the Greeks in the early days are still seen in our towns and cities. The image underneath depicts the initial old style of Greek temples, named after the tribe of Spartans, namely the Doric tribe. The earliest of such temples were constructed out of timber, comprising of a small cubicle that held the image of the god.


A Doric Temple: the Parthenon. Athens, Acropolis, Designed by Iktinos, about 450 BC

Around 600 BC, the Greeks began emulating these simple structures in stone. The wooden poles for support were transformed into columns that bore the strong stone cross beams. These crossbeams, called Architraves supported the entire unit, resting on columns and collectively known as “Entablature”. The ends of beams were marked with three slits usually familiar with the name “Triglyphs”, meaning three slits. The space between the beams known as “Metope”.

The fact that architects did not prefer simple cubic pillars or cylindrical columns speaks volumes of their aesthetic sensibilities, instead they shaped the columns with slight swellings towards the middle and tapering off towards the top, that made them look elastic in nature, having the ability to bear the burden of the entire roof.

Around 600 BC, the first stone temples came into being in Athens, Greece. It was here that the most significant and impressive revolution in the history of Art and Architecture took place. Prior to this, artists of ancient East Asian empires had made great efforts to achieve this particular type of magnificence. They tried to imitate the Art of their ancestors as closely as possible and thus stick to the rules they had adopted.

Fabrication in stone was the next step from where the Egyptians and Assyrians had left. The Greeks studied the human body closely by emulating the  Egyptian way of approaching figurative sculpture. The image below represents two Greek stone figures that date back to around 580 BC which clearly bring forward an attempt of experimentation and innovation. The artist seemed to have focused on peculiar details such as that of the knees. Even though less convincing than the Egyptian figures, but the point being the artist deviated from age-old traditions in quest of variation and change. Egyptians had their Art based on knowledge whereas the Greek sculptor adhered strictly to observation.

Once this revolution got underway, sculptors implemented new ways and techniques of portraying the human figure, adding to their own discoveries. If one discovered how to chisel the trunk, another came up with ways to make the sculpture more alive by removing contact of both feet from the ground. Similarly, progress in facial features was perceived, such as the bending of the mouth in an attempt to bring out a smile or a grin to be precise. The obstacles or hindrance that was encountered by them did not fill them with fear, instead convinced them to progress gradually.

Speaking of Greek Art in terms of painting, we’re only aware of it to the extent Greek writers have enlightened us whereas the important point being, Greek painters were celebrated more than Greek sculptors back in the day.

The only way we could form an opinion of Greek painting of the past is by studying imagery we see on pottery. Painted Greek vases that were used to hold wine, formed an identity and industry of their own in Athens. The craftsmen enjoyed innovation in their vases as much as other artists did in the pursuit of coming up with intriguing new outcomes.

In the vases belonging to the 6th century BC, we see great influences of Egyptian methods and techniques e.g the vase we see in the image below is from around 540 BC that depicts Achilles and Ajax playing draughts in their tent. Speaking of the profile view and the big eyes are clear indications of Egyptian influences but the bodies were shown differently. The body postures including the arms were less rigid, making them look more realistic as the artist discarded ancient rules of depicting what they had knowledge of. As discussed earlier, imagery to quite an extent was based on observation.


Greek Vase in the “Black-figured style” with Achilles and Ajax playing draughts. Signed by Exekias, About 540 BC, Vatican Museum

As a result, painters came up with big discoveries such as the representation of foreshortening. It was also the first time in the history of figurative painting that the artist started illustrating feet from a frontal perspective. This innovation can be observed in the image of the vase below that portrays a young warrior preparing for battle by putting on his armour, his parents on either side, assisting and counselling him before he embarks on his journey. However, the head of the soldier could still be seen in profile, as drawing the head from the front was still considered challenging.

The warrior’s leavetaking, Vase of the red-figured style signed by Euthymides, about 500 BC, Munich, Antiquarium Museum

Looking at the two works discussed earlier, we could deduce that lessons from Egyptian Art were not discarded completely. It seemed a fusion of the past and the then present. Greek painters made clear distinctive outlines of their figures and focused on a harmonious and balanced design.

The revelation of organic forms and foreshortening marked the great revolution of Greek Art, a significant period in human history. It was the time when Greeks started to question ancient traditions and myths about the gods, instead started inquiring and dwelling deep into the character of things.

Theatre emerged for the first time in the form of a ceremony in honour of Dionysus. However, despite all this speedy progress, artists were still considered to belong to the inferior class of society lacking intellect. Artists were mere workers who earned each penny at the cost of their labour and sweat, labourers we could address them as. However, their stakes in the city of Athens were far high in comparison to Egyptian or Assyrian craftsmen.

It was considered to be the most overwhelming moment of progress in Athens, a time period characterized by high morale too, because of successfully being able to defend the Persian invasion. The rebuilding of the temples commenced that had been burned down by the Persians, this time constructed with extraordinary dexterity, bringing out a magnificent and splendid appearance. Pericles the ruler at that time treated artists with the utmost dignity and considered them his equivalent. The architect that he called on was “Iktinos” and the sculptor he engaged in the embellishment of temples was “Pheidias”.

Pheidias’s two notable works, Athene and the prestigious statue of Zeus in Olympia are nowhere to be seen today but the temples in which they resided, still exist. As mentioned earlier, Greek figures exuded influences of Egyptian Art and so the magnificence of Greek Sculpture has to be credited to those ancient rules that were brought into practice. Drapery, a featured attraction of Greek Sculpture made use of to mark main divisions of the body speaks volumes of their knowledge of form and human anatomy.

Zeus in Olympia, by Phedias

It is this fusion of traditional rules and the freedom of the artist that counts for the extraordinary appreciation received by Greek Art for centuries after. Artists have revisited Greek sculpture and the masterpieces for Greek Art to seek guidance and inspiration.

The sort of work Greek Artists became acquainted with was primarily figurative, representation of perfect bodies as they had a profound sense of anatomy. This ardent fascination and a vehement feeling of self-glorification are strongly manifested in the statues of triumphant athletes, surrounding the temple of Olympia.

The Greeks were deeply passionate about sports, majority of whom belonged to leading wealthy families of Greece and so the victorious ones were perceived as men who God had favoured with a spell of invincibility.

Excavations in Olympia revealed many pedestals on which these famous figures once stood but none of these statues was to be found. It is believed that because they were made of bronze, it is most likely that inhabitants from the Middle Ages, melted them down when they faced scarcity of metal. Only one of such figures has been discovered to date and that is the head of a Charioteer in bronze.

Head of the bronze statue of a charioteer, found in Delphi, made about 470 BC, Delphi Museum


It clearly depicts the artist’s intention of not replicating reality but shaping it according to his own knowledge of the human body. The features are prominent, coloured stones are used in place of the eyes and the light brownish colour of gold that adds to the richness and warmth on the face.

Another work that truly reflects the artist’s obsession with the human form and interest in sports, is the “Discus Thrower” by Myron. This sculptural piece portrays an athlete captured in motion, moments before hurling the discus. On closer and critical examination of the piece, we discover how Myron brought about movement through a new way of ancient artistic practice. Drawing resemblance to Egyptian forms, Myron depicts the trunk in frontal view and the arms and legs in profile. Hence we could infer that Myron captured movement in a similar manner to how painters of his time dominated space.

DISCUS THROWER BY MYRON

Nearly every work from this great Greek period is a manifestation of the freedom to capture movement and various postures of the human body in an attempt to represent the emotional and intrinsic states of the figures.

In this regard, it is the portrayal of the subconscious that turned tombstones into great works of art. For instance, the relief below depicts Hegeso buried under the stone. A girl has represented handing over a jewellery box to her, this imagery quite resembles the Egyptian depiction of Pharaoh Tutankhamun perched on his throne and his wife adjusting his collar.

Greek relief was devoid of limitations as was the case with Egyptian reliefs. Greek reliefs maintain an element of beautiful arrangements that are no longer geometrical, accompanied by free-flowing gestures, not rigid as those of the Egyptians. The flow of drapery encompassing the human form seems so calm and serene, thereby giving rise to Greek Art of the 5th century.


Art History Timeline Chronological order: Find More About 

1: Primitive Art; Ancient America (Paleolithic Age)- Neolithic Art

2: Mesopotamia, Crete and Egypt, History of Art

3: GREECE (Seventh to Fifth century BC) 

4: Greece (Fifth century BC to First Century AD)- History of Art

5: The World Conquerors, Jews, Christians, Romans and Buddhists (First to Fourth Century AD )

6: Rome and Byzantium, Fifth to the Thirteenth century 

7:Eastward, Islam, China, 2nd to 13th Century  

8: Europe, Sixth to Eleventh Century, History of Western Art In Melting Pot